It seems I’ve picked up an interest in the Civil War just as America is undergoing a revival of Abolitionist Porn. That, at any rate, is what I take this much-talked-of new movie 12 Years a Slave
No, I haven’t seen the thing, but I’ve read reviews. Also I’ve seen (and reviewed) a specimen of the allied genre: Civil Rights Porn.
And I’ve no doubt there was such a thing as Abolitionist Porn. It would have been surprising if there wasn’t. Whenever there’s a deep and long-standing difference between two sets of social principles, a genre of lurid tales will come up in one camp, denigrating the other.
So I’ve no doubt that antebellum Yankees enjoyed having their flesh made to creep by stories of the dreadful goings-on in Southern plantations.
There was at least enough of this kind of thing for Southerners to poke fun at it. Here is Gone With The Wind
’s Scarlett O’Hara making business calls on occupying Yankees in Reconstruction Atlanta:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin as revelation second only to the Bible, the Yankee women all wanted to know about the bloodhounds which every Southerner kept to track down runaway slaves. And they never believed her when she told them she had only seen one bloodhound in all her life . . . They wanted to know about the dreadful branding irons which planters used to mark the faces of their slaves . . . and they evidenced what Scarlett felt was a very nasty and ill-bred interest in slave concubinage.
[Gone With the Wind
, Chapter 38.]
Reading that, and knowing something of the author’s background, I thought: Well, I bet there were bloodhounds; but I also bet there were young plantation women who had seen only one.
Some googling on the Slave Narratives
confirms the first, at any rate. The Slave Narratives
are recorded reminiscences from ex-slaves, gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936-38. The speaker here was born “around 1852”:
Mars George fed an’ clo’esed well an’ was kin’ to his slaves, but once in a while one would git onruly an’ have to be punished. De worse I ever seen one whupped was a slave man dat had slipped off an’ hid out in de woods to git out of wuk. Dey chased him wid blood hounds, an’ when dey did fin’ him dey tied him to a tree, stroppin’ him ’round an’ ’round. Dey sho’ did gib him a lashin’.
[Mississippi Slave Narratives
, Harriet Walker.]
As that extract illustrates, though, the Slave Narratives
also remind us how remarkably often ex-slaves spoke well of their masters.
Plainly there was more to American race slavery that white masters brutalizing resentful Negroes. How much more, though? What was slavery actually like
Trying to get to grips with this, I found it easiest to divide up the topic the way Caesar divided Gaul, into three parts:
•Slavery as a condition.
•American slave society as a way of life.
•The position of blacks in America’s first century.
Of slavery as a condition—the ownership of human beings—the first thing to be said is that any person of feeling and imagination has to think it wrong, on the Golden Rule principle. The liberty to work out your own destiny, by your own volition, is a sweet thing, as the Spartans told the Persian. I wouldn’t deprive anyone of it.
That said, some historical imagination is in order. People are born, raised, educated, and find themselves in a certain kind of society to which those around them are all accustomed. American slave society was
a way of life; a settled way that most people took for granted, as most people will anywhere.
There were aspects of life resembling slavery in the communist China where I lived, 1982-3. People had no liberty to find their own employment. You were “assigned” to a “unit.” If unhappy there, it was a devil of a job to get re-assigned.
Families broken up? One of my Chinese colleagues lived alone because his wife was “assigned” to a distant province. He only saw her once a year.
The guy drank a lot.
Yet while there was much grumbling, and some scattered seething rebelliousness, most Chinese got along with the system. A lot of people were very happy with it. You didn’t have to think much, or take much responsibility. And that suits many of us just fine.
Slavery is more irksome to some than to others; and freedom can be irksome, too. Personally, I’d be a terrible slave—too ornery. I know people, though—and I’m talking about white people—who I quietly suspect would be happy in slavery.
John Derbyshire, VDARE 21 Comments
[12/3/2013 5:00:44 AM]
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